Between the Fires
May 16, 2014
If you've been paying attention to the news this week, you know that down the road apiece from here, fires have been destroying homes and causing havoc all over northern San Diego County. Now, you're expecting me to decry radio coverage of the situation, I'm sure, but I can't do that, because there was plenty of very fine coverage on multiple stations. Even music stations did their part not only getting information out there but organizing relief efforts from the very beginning. You know when the NAB puts out statements crowing about radio's value in an emergency? This is one of those times when the accolades are appropriate.
(Don't worry, there's a "but" coming up. Hold on.)
And, yes, it's an example of a major competitive advantage for radio. Permit me to sound like Jeff Smulyan pushing the FM tuner chips in cell phones, but when we're talking about wildfires -- and in Southern California, unfortunately, we talk about them a lot -- the Internet might not be available, cell phones or otherwise, especially when fires are taking out cell towers and you're rushing to get out of your neighborhood with everything you could fit into your car. You can't rely on streaming, you can't necessarily access a website, but you can flip on the radio, or use a hand-cranked radio, and if radio's doing its job, as many stations did this time, you'll get the information you need. That's a huge thing.
(Okay, here comes the "but.")
(There it is.)
...being there for people in an emergency is not enough. And it also draws attention to a few problems in the industry that haven't really been addressed. Let's go over these things:
1. Being available in an emergency is not, in and of itself, a business plan. It's important, it's part of what makes radio special, but if, once the fires are out, people go back to listening to or using other media, radio's in trouble. Which means that stations need to give people reasons to listen ALL of the time, not just when Carlsbad and San Marcos are on fire. That would require unique, compelling, relevant programming. The same-old boring guys in suits talking politics? You can get that on cable news, on the Internet, on Twitter. Do something you CAN'T get elsewhere.
2. If an emergency breaks out in your area, do you have the news staff to do the job? If your news comes from a service someplace else, that's fine, but you have to be prepared with boots on the ground, and I'm concerned that in some markets, there are, for all practical purposes, no boots on the ground. That's the result of years of looking at radio news staffs as a way to quickly cut costs, not to provide a valuable (in many ways) service.
3. Related to that, jeez, PLEASE don't just air a TV station's audio. When the anchor tells you to look at what the CBS 8 chopper is showing -- "wow, look at that!" -- I CAN'T SEE IT. TV news audio is not an adequate replacement for actual radio news. Radio news is a different animal, and can do things TV news can't, like get places a camera crew can't and do deeper-dive stories that may not have visual elements but are important nonetheless (hello, public radio). The industry needs to re-establish local radio news as a priority, and "partnerships" that allow a radio station to flip a switch and let a TV station's audio "handle" the emergency doesn't do that.
So, kudos to the folks in San Diego radio who are getting the story and serving their listeners in ways that should make the entire industry proud. But, at the same time, let's use this example not as a way to tell ourselves everything is fine, but as a way to remind ourselves of what radio needs to do to keep itself relevant not just when there's an emergency but between the fires.
The fires have been just one of the many subjects available for your talk and morning radio show use at All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics. As always, we have hundreds of items and ideas for segments on your shows, plus kicker stories you won't see anywhere else. Find it by clicking here. And the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics has every story individually linked to the appropriate item.
Also, this week, we have a really interesting "10 Questions With..." "Bald Bryan" Bishop, sidekick and King of Drops on Adam Carolla's podcast and the author of a new book, "Shrinkage," about his battle with a brain tumor and his career in, and after, radio. It's about what happens when life throws you a curve when you least expect it, and it's more than the typical radio host autobiography. Read the interview, and buy the book.
And follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and as for Nerdist.com, come on over and check out the new look. Still occasionally posting at pmsimon.com, too.
Oh, and a brief note and, I suppose, disclaimer in advance of any more formal announcement: My Nerdist position has changed, and I've been named Director of Programming for the company, which will involve the podcast network as well as other cross-platform duties. So from here on out, I'll increase the volume of my usual warning that I also work for a company prominently involved in podcasting. And shamelessly plug the Nerdist Podcast Network, because why not.
Profuse thank yous to everyone who supported Fran and me in our walk last Saturday in the Revlon Run/Walk for Women's Cancer in Los Angeles. It was, as always, rewarding and fun (with cameo appearances by Bruce Willis and Halle Berry, no less), and a wonderful celebration of survival. Wait, you didn't get a chance to donate? It's not too late: click here to contribute. And, once again, to everyone who supported us in any way, thank you.